Today, Brother Leader Muammar Qaddafi packs up the tent in the gardens of the Hotel Marigny, the official guest residence next to the Elysee Palace, and ends his five-day stay in the City of Lights. The visit was too much, even for the French. Said Manuel Valls, a veteran socialist: “I have the impression that France has been humiliated.”
Make that humiliated and criticized. Nobody seems to be defending the French government of Nicolas Sarkozy for inviting the Libyan strongman. The erratic autocrat has managed to outrage just about everybody on his first official visit to a Western state since 2003, when he renounced terrorism and nuclear weapons. Controversy has followed almost every one of his outlandish and insulting comments on a wide range of topics, but the larger issue is the West’s engagement of reforming tyrants. Qaddafi is now considered “a socially acceptable dictator.”
But Qaddafi remains a dictator nonetheless, and that has caused heartburn for the center-right French government. President Sarkozy has been on the defensive about his warm welcome for the charismatic, mercurial, and despotic Libyan, who came with 400 followers and his contingent of female bodyguards in desert fatigues. In his best reply to critics, the French leader asked, “If we don’t welcome those who take the road to respectability, then what do we say to those who take the opposite road?”
Sarko, of course, has a point and Qaddafi may theoretically have a “right to redemption,” but it is the nature of France’s engagement that has been wrong. “It’s a question of balance, and in this case, the balance wasn’t right,” said Dominique Moisi, director of the French Institute on International Relations. Even some ministers in the French government have thought their president has gone too far in pandering to the “Supreme Guide of the Revolution.” Unfortunately, the Libyan, with petrodollars to spend, has been able to bend the normally clear-thinking leader of France. “Qaddafi is not perceived as a dictator in the Arab world,” Sarkozy told a French magazine on Wednesday. “He is the longest serving head of state in the region, and in the Arab world, that counts.”
What really counts is that Western leaders speak plainly. It’s all right to deal with autocrats from time-to-time, but we need to make sure that we do not legitimize them and create incentives for regressive behavior. As it happens, in the glow of his pomped-up stay, Qaddafi felt comfortable enough in, among other things, turning back the clock and repeating his denials that his government has never sponsored terrorism. This step in the wrong direction shows that Sarkozy has not found the right way to keep the Libyan on the right road.